Of course, your child’s birthday is a cause for celebration. His/her inaugural one, after all, was no doubt one of your happiest days. Yet the planning, the research, the running around, the worrying that goes into executing a kids’ party that’ll elicit the face-splitting smiles you seek can be, in a word, exhausting. And that’s where we come in. Lucky for us, Connecticut is chockablock with some pretty spectacular kids’ party places and we’ve spent the past few months taking a careful look at them. What follows is the 411 on some of our favorites, from a rockin’ retro roller rink and a movie house that’ll put your child’s name in lights to a museum that puts them behind the controls of a copter and a discovery park that’ll have them flying through the air. So relax: The hard work is done for you. After this, choosing the ideal spot will seem like, well, a piece of cake.
HURRY, HURRY, DRIVE THE FIRE TRUCK
Waterbury-based Fire Engine Express (203/558-5444 or fireengineexpress.com) boasts a fully refurbished 1977 Mack fire engine that it will deliver to your driveway for your firefighter-in-training’s next birthday bash. The two-hour party ($250 to most areas of the state) includes 45 minutes for the kids to explore the engine itself, i.e., flash the lights, blast the siren, get behind the wheel and pose for photos in authentic firefighter gear; 45 minutes for rides (we’re talking the open road—sans sirens, of course); and a half hour of play time with the fire hose and all the water from the truck’s 1,000-gallon tank the kids can handle/dance in. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Kids can party hearty with some of the ocean’s smallest creatures under the microscopes at Project Oceanology in Groton (860/445-9007 or oceanology.org). They can even create their own plankton models for action-packed plankton races—oh, the excitement! Another of Project O’s popular theme parties, “My, That’s a Lovely Fish You’re Wearing!” teaches a technique inspired by the ancient Chinese tradition of fish printing to make bright-and shiny T-shirt masterpieces. All parties are $300 for 25 kids (adults are free) and include a two-hour science program, use of oceanographic and laboratory equipment, a hands-on activity with creatures from the sea-water tanks and a half-hour for the post-plankton celebration.
The mission at Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland (866/860-0208 or brownstonepark.com) is “to make sure each kid leaves here exhausted at the end of the day.” Indeed, it’d be hard not to. Quick history lesson: Brownstone is built around what was once a brownstone quarry in the late 1800s. The 1938 Hurricane, however, turned it into a 29-acre freshwater swimming hole. In 2006 it was reborn as a “sports adventure” park. And, oh, the adventures: a 1,000-foot zip line with a dry landing or one of three runs that end with a wild water landing, cliff jumping from brownstone cliffs ranging from 5 to 30 feet, wakeboarding, rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, rope swings, floating trampolines . . . are you tired yet? The package for eight guests is $375 and includes adventure sports passes, a two-person kayak for the day, cake and a floating gazebo to use as home base.
The Connecticut Science Center in Hartford (860/724-3623 or ctsciencecenter.org) is spectacular in and of itself. Its 10 galleries, after all, include more than 150 (!) exhibits that invite kids to touch, see, hear, smell, and learn! Witness “Mindbender Mansion,” a “giant playhouse for the brain,” “Planet Earth”’s 78-mph hurricane simulator and the chance to “freeze” time and race against gravity in “Forces of Motion.” If that’s not enough, you can add a gaming option to your package and score an hour to play the kids’ favorite Wii games like Mario Kart and Rock Band in the museum’s 3-D digital theater with its 30-by-40-foot screen. The “Cosmic Package” plus gaming is $360 and includes admission for 12 kids, two adults, a party room for two hours, gaming, a program exploring the science of bubbles or polymers (make your own bubble solution or slime!), a T-shirt for the birthday kid, a scavenger hunt, invites and a coupon for each guest for a free return visit.
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG GOES THE TROLLEY
Connecticut Company City Car No. 1602 is all yours for a party at The Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven (203/467-6927 or bera.org). Birthdays aboard the 1911 wooden trolley car, which once traveled the streets of New Haven, include two-hour use of the trolley car, round trips on the museum’s 1.5-mile historic rail line through woodlands and marsh (look, there’s an osprey nest!) and a half hour for set-up. The car fits approximately 40 and because it has seats along the sides, you can set up tables down the center and enjoy those cupcakes right on board. Afterward, hop off at the rail yard and let the kids explore the trolley barns—the museum has some 100 vintage transit vehicles in its collection.
THE HOUSE OF BOUNCE
When schools were closed for what seemed like the 90th time this January, BounceU Stratford (203/375-2700) and Rocky Hill (860/529-6500 or bounceu.com) blasted an email with this suggestion: “Get the kids out of the house and let them bounce off of our walls instead of yours.” A brilliant plan any time of year as far as we’re concerned, especially when it’s party time. For the uninitiated, BounceU is an indoor “bounce stadium.” Think inflatable 17-foot slides, obstacle courses, a rock wall, basketball and football tosses, a boxing ring complete with giant blow-up boxing gloves. The Premiere Package ($350 to $385) includes an hour and 15 minutes of play time for 25 guests in a private bounce room, 45 minutes in a private party room, invites and two party pros to run the show (they clean up, too).
Super-sized ice cream sundaes back the pedicure stations at Sundae Spa in Waterbury (877/737-3593 or sundaespa.com). Cherries the size of basketballs hang from the ceiling, and giant lollipops and cupcakes line the walls of the party rooms. This is obviously not your mama’s day spa: It’s the state’s first spa designed entirely for kids and since it opened last October, it’s been hot, hot, hot! Party packages can include everything from pouffing and pampering (facials, pedis, manis, hair wraps) to teaching the girls how to stir up their own lotions and potions like lip balms, bath fizz and body sprays in sweet scents like cotton candy and watermelon. The new “Divalicious Dolls” package ($375 for eight guests) includes a hair style/wrap and eye “kandy” application for the girls as well as a lesson in how to style their dolls’ hair. The dolls (seated, but of course, in their own tiny salon chairs) also get their own eye “kandy” applied. A yummy sundae tops off the celebration and each girl goes home with a framed photo.
WORK IT, BABY
The Workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden (203/777-1833 or eliwhitney.org) is one very cool place. The folks here are all about learning through what they call “essential experimentation,” and are ready and willing to help the kids get as messy or as noisy as it takes to make sure the “color and sound and feel” of their experiments are everything they should be. The logistics: Two-hour parties are $15 per child with a 10-child minimum and you must be a museum member (family memberships are $45 for the year). Projects to build and bring home range from a pinball machine that teaches force and motion to a reversing switch and buggy that explores electrical and magnetic energy. The staff will even design a custom project to suit your budding scientist’s interests. Told you: Way cool.
THE SILVER SCREEN
Book a party at Bethel Cinema (203/778-3100 or bethelcinema.com) and the landmark independent theater will wish your child “Happy Birthday” on its outdoor marquee for all the world to see—how’s that for a turn in the spotlight? Packages are $245 for up to 10 children (the birthday child and siblings and adults are free) and include a theater all to your own (the cinema has four that seat between 76 and 165), party space for post-show festivities; popcorn, drinks and cake all around; invites, thank-you notes and paper/plastic goods; and a balloon for each guest. Better yet, it’s BYO movie! Just grab any DVD your child wants to see (for the first time or the 50th) and you’re good to go. Suggestion: A widescreen DVD format provides the best picture.
COME FLY WITH ME
The New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks (860/623-3305 or neam.org) has more than 80 aircraft in its kickin’ collection, everything from a VS-44A Flying Boat to a WWII B-29 Superfortress to a Vietnam-era “Huey” copter, all spread throughout three sprawling buildings with a total of 75,000 square feet of exhibit space. Parties ($200 for nonmembers) include admission for 25 guests, a party room for two hours, a coupon for guests to return yet again and one activity, whether “story under a wing,” a craft, a theme-based tour or “open cockpit,” the hands-down favorite that lets the kids explore the ins and outs of at least one helicopter, airliner and war bird. Yes, you may climb in, too.
GIVE IT A WHIRL
The New England Carousel Museum in Bristol (860/585-5411 or the carouselmuseum.org) boasts one of the largest collections of carousel horses and menagerie figures in the country. Two-hour parties take place amid the painted ponies and include a tour of the museum, craft session and time for cake and yummies. Themes include “Carousels” (of course), “Days of Knights” and “Victorian Tea Party.” Prices range from $6 to $10 a child (two adults are free, additional adults are $5). Or, if you gather up a big enough group, you can host one of the hugely popular sleepover birthday bashes at the museum, complete with games, activities and folk art. (Cost is $22 a child, $10 an adult with a 50-child minimum; the museum will help coordinate with other groups to help meet the minimum for the magical evening.) Finally, the museum also runs the show-stopping 1914 Bushnell Park Carousel in Hartford, home to 48 majestic steeds, two chariots and a grand ol’ Wurlitzer band organ. Parties are $8 per child, $5 per adult and include two hours of unlimited rides, party space, popcorn and balloons. The carousel is open April through December.
Got an aspiring conductor on your hands? The Essex Steam Train (860/767-0103 or essexsteamtrain.com) offers two-hour parties aboard its thoroughly adorable little red caboose for up to 18 guests. Packages include a T-shirt for the birthday boy or girl, a balloon and goodie bag for each child, as well as a “Ride Free with Adult” ticket for his/her next visit. The caboose can remain at Essex Station ($250) or ride the rails behind an authentic coal-burning steam locomotive for a 12-mile trip through Deep River and Chester and back again ($375). The hiss of the steam, the blast of the whistle and the clickety-clack of the tracks combined with cake, balloons and presents—seriously, what self-respecting train lover could resist?
“Fancy Pants” the zebra donkey is one of 120 animals that call Ray of Light Farm in East Haddam (860/873-1895 or rayoflightfarm.org) home. Then there’s Joe and Mike, the oxen that welcome you as you pull through the gates of the 25-acre farm; African Spurred tortoises Stanley and Stella; peacocks Indigo and Ink; Joseph the Bourbon Red turkey; llamas and guinea pigs; pigs and horses—lots of horses (60 at last count). Down-home two-hour parties are held in a party room off the tack store and include a meet-and-greet-and-pet-and-feed farm tour as well as pony rides and face painting. The $200 price tag is for up to 10 children (adults are free).The feel-good part of it all: Ray of Light is a nonprofit animal rescue and animal-assisted therapy center committed to “helping people make a positive connection with life” through animals.
WE ARE THE DINOSAURS
It’s not often you have a 40-foot-tall Brachiosaurus at your birthday party, let alone a life-sized Anchisaurus or a Therizinosaurus. You will at The Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art in Oakdale (860/443-4367 or thedinosaurplace.com). Dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes “roam” these 50 wooded acres and outdoor parties (held April through October) give kids the run of the land, including a 1.5-mile walking trail, playground, life-sized maze and Monty’s Splashpad with more than 30 dino-themed water features (open Father’s Day weekend through Labor Day). Cost is $24.99 per guest and includes choice of pizza, hot dogs or chicken nuggets, beverages and ice cream, tablecloths, utensils and paper goods, and a gift for the b-day child. Indoor packages with themes like “Fabulous Fossils,” which lets kids unearth a dinosaur fossil in the Bone Zone, and “Radical Rocks,” which lets guests mine for crystals and tumbled stones in Jackpot Pine, are available year-round.
Attention thrill-seekers: The “Wooden Warrior” roller coaster makes its debut at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury (203/758-2913 or quassy.com) this month. And then there’s last year’s bold addition: the “Free Fall ’N’” family drop tower, the grand carousel (you’ll notice we’re getting progressively more “sedate” here), the “Saturation Station” water-play area next to the beach on Lake Quassapaug, and, of course, classic kiddie rides like the dune buggies and helicopters you once “braved.” The $250 party package includes 10 unlimited all-day ride and “Saturation Station” passes for the young ’uns to try them all, four adult “Saturation Station” passes, use of the birthday “Fun Zone” for pizza, beverages and ice cream, and a balloon bouquet and 50 arcade redemption tickets for the birthday kiddo.
BY THE SEA
“Penguin Palooza,” “Ocean Locomotion” and “Beluga Blast” are but a few of the wet-and-wild celebrations to be found at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (860/572-5955 or mysticaquarium.org). Packages ($400 for nonmembers) include 1.5 hours in a private learning lab with a party host and themed program, a private touch tank of wiggly, giggly sea creatures or a live reptile, cake, tableware and utensils, a party favor for each child, and admission to the aquarium itself for 15 guests. The aquarium will also bring the party to your house if it’s within a 75-mile radius of Mystic. Traveling parties include a touch-and-learn session with various creatures of the sea and one-hour programs that range from “Under the Sea” for guppies 3 and under to “Amazing Sharks,” for ages 10 to 13. Cost for nonmembers is $230 for up to 30 children.
Long Beach Skateland in Stratford (203/378-9033 or longbeachskateland.com) has been a local landmark for more than 50 years. Perhaps you once roller skated here—with ribbon barrettes in your hair and Olivia Newton-John on the sound system. Your mother might even have skated here. Long before that, back when trolleys would drop off the resort crowds at Long Beach, it was the site of a dance hall where beach-goers would swing the night away to Big Band sounds—you’ve gotta love a place with so much history behind it. Better still: A retro two-hour private skating party here is the bargain of the bunch—just $135 for up to 30 guests including skate rentals. Can you do the “Hokey Pokey” and “Chicken Dance” on roller skates? Absolutely.
SEE, HEAR, TOUCH, FEEL, DO
Splash, crank, clang, giggle. There’s no shortage of opportunities for kids to explore at the newly expanded and more-spectacular-than-ever Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk (203/899-0606 or steppingstonesmuseum.org)—some 100 hands-on activities, in fact. Two-hour parties for 25 guests include a private party room, T-shirt for the birthday kid and invitations. Celebrations for those 4 and under are $450 for nonmembers and also include giant soft blocks and drums. Parties for 5 and older are $500 for nonmembers and also include a craft and a museum guide. Us? We’d be happy spending all our time in the new “Energy Lab”—a 1,500-square-foot, million-dollar, wet, wild and wonderful exhibit where kids learn all about the science of energy.
“Critter Craft,” “Animal Encounter” and “Zoo-rrific” parties at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport (203/332-4243 or beardsleyzoo.com) are centered in the 52-acre zoo’s Carousel Building. Packages vary by price (between $300 and $450 for nonmembers) and offerings (perhaps a visit from a chinchilla or lizard, a craft—or both) but include admission for at least 15 kids and 15 adult guests, four carousel rides per child, pizza, soft drinks and paper goods, and a gift for the birthday child. Before (or after) the party guests can explore the zoo itself, which includes a South American rainforest, New England Farmyard (gotta get a picture of the kids with the giant cow) and more than 120 species of animals: Golden lion tamarins and Siberian tigers and spectacled Andean bears—oh, my!
A SOUND CHOICE
The Maritime Aquarium in South Norwalk (203/852-0700 or maritimeaquarium.org) focuses primarily on the marine life of one body of water: our own Long Island Sound. A noble cause, an admirable cause but one that feels just a bit unsettling when the kids stand next to the aquarium’s 110,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit and stare into the steely eyes of one of the big ol’ sand tiger sharks that, yes indeedy, call the sound “home”—yikes! On to the harbor seals (they don’t come much cuter), the docile charms of the loggerhead turtles, the acrobatic river otters, and more. Two-and-a-half hour parties for 25 guests are $315 for nonmembers and include a craft, guided tour of the aquarium, up-close-and-personal encounter with the intertidal-zone residents of the touch tank (horseshoe crabs do like to have their bellies rubbed), private party room and a T-shirt for the guest of honor.
For more suggestions for places to party, click here.